Fact Check

Shark Photobomb?

Does a photograph show a pair of unwitting 12-year-old surfers in the direct path of a shark?

Published Dec 30, 2013

Great White Shark, Carcharodon carcharias, near the water surface, six nautical miles from the coast of Gansbaai, quite close to Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, The surface hunter often finds his prey on the water surface. The super-robber great white shark with its size and strength and fearsome jaws is a permanent danger to the South African fur seals around the Island, The great white shark belongs to the family of mako sharks and has very large gill slits and long pectoral fins. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Image Via Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photograph shows a pair of 12-year-old surfers photobombed by a shark.

Back in 2003, a photograph seemingly displaying a surfer engaged in a close encounter with a shark hit the online world big time (although the photo in question was later proved to have actually captured an image of a dolphin, not a shark.) That phenomenon repeated itself ten years later in another case that saw the viral circulation of a similar "surfer vs. shark" image which, although it was a real picture, also much more likely pictured a dolphin rather than a shark.


There's a "shark photobomb" picture taken by a mom of her 12 yr. old boy and his friend in the water and a shark shadow behind them in an oncoming wave.... in California... is that photo shopped or real???

Click to enlarge

On the early afternoon of 27 December 2013, June Emerson was snapping photos of her 12-year-old twins surfing at Manhattan Beach, California. On the way home, she noticed something unusual in one of those pictures: a snapshot of her surfing twins had seemingly been "photobombed" by a lurking shark.

That photograph of a close encounter of the marine kind was spread widely online after it was posted on Facebook with the comment "Another beautiful day at the beach. Big waves and apparently Big Fish! (Look into wave to right of Quinn Emerson, who's out catching a few!)" Emerson told a Los Angeles television news station that "I'm not sure what it was, but it definitely scared me when I thought it might be a shark."

The possibility of encountering sharks in those waters was certainly a plausible one, as the Los Angeles Times had noted just a few weeks earlier that Manhattan Beach is one of the California coastal areas that has seen a significant increase in shark sightings in the last few years:

Sharks have recently been spotted more frequently near the El Porto waters off Manhattan Beach, an area popular with surfers and paddleboarders. Others have posted their close encounters on YouTube, but researchers and wildlife officials are calling for restraint, warning that the sharks will attack if they feel threatened.

Many of the great whites appear to be juveniles learning to feed and fend for themselves, said Chris Lowe, a marine biology professor and leader of the research Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach.

Researchers are still trying to determine why the young sharks have been drawn to the El Porto area — perhaps warmer temperatures or a larger feeding pool. Through tagging and other monitoring methods, researchers hope to have more of an answer by next year.

But one thing is clear: Experts have noticed an increase in shark sightings off beaches in Manhattan, Redondo and Ventura over the last few years. That may be alarming for some, but it's a welcome development for wildlife researchers who say it's a sign of a healthy rebound for marine life after California legislators prohibited the use of gill nets for fishing in 1990.

However, opinion on Facebook and elsewhere was highly divided over whether the finned sea creature captured gliding through the nearby wave was actually a deadly shark or a much more innocuous dolphin:

Discovery Channel shark expert Jeff Kurr calls it a great white shark, but shark expert David Shiffman believes it was a dolphin.

The difference in the experts' opinions centers on how they view the tail.

"This is not a #shark photobombing kids. This is a dolphin," Shiffman tweeted. Shiffman, a recognized expert on great white sharks, noted in a Facebook posting that "the tail is flat," like a dolphin and unlike a shark.

But in an interview with CNN, Kurr concluded it was "a juvenile great white shark about 10 to 12 feet long."

"I would say based on the shape of the dorsal fin, which is more straight, that shows me it's a great white shark," Kurr said. "Plus, the fact that that particular beach has become the epicenter for white shark activity, I would say it's definitely a white shark."

There are plenty of great white sharks in the southern California surf, but they pose no danger to beachgoers, according to Randy Hamilton, a shark expert with California's Monterey Bay Aquarium.

David Shiffman told us that "100% of shark biologists and dolphin biologists that I spoke with identified this animal as a dolphin," and he has published a blog entry detailing why the animal in question was much more likely a dolphin than a shark.


Banks, Alicia.   "Great White Shark Sightings Thrilling, But Also a Good Sign for Species."     Los Angeles Times.   3 December 2013.

Taylor, Doris.   "Experts Debate Beach Photobomber: Shark or Dolphin?"     WTKR-TV [Hampton Roads, VA].   30 December 2013.

CBS News.   "Did Shark Photobomb Calif. Family Photo?"     30 December 2013.

KTLA-TV [Los Angeles].   "Photo Captures Apparent Encounter with Shark at Manhattan Beach."     28 December 2013.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

Article Tags

a Member

Your membership is the foundation of our sustainability and resilience.


Ad-Free Browsing on Snopes.com
Members-Only Newsletter
Cancel Anytime